Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry: a limitless genius who took Jamaica into the future

“Until reggae it was all Kingston … Kingston, Kingston, Kingston! Ska? … Rocksteady? … they were Kingston things with the same Kingston men doing the same Kingston things.”

Lee “Scratch” Perry – who has died aged 85 – was talking me through perhaps the most significant gear change in the earlier years of Jamaican music – and was understandably animated, even by his own hyperactive standards.

His statement sums up so much of what made his music so special. “It was when the country people come to town and bring with them the earth, the trees, the mountains – that’s when reggae music go back to the earth. They used to look on country men as madmen, but so what? Sometimes it takes a madman, because these madmen can’t play the same thing the same way because it don’t mean nothing to them.”

He was talking about the shift, in the mid-1960s, from musical styles that had strong American foundations to something more or less uniquely Jamaican – namely reggae – and how the makeup of the Kingston music business had changed as it established itself to attract talent from all over the island: Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer.

And Perry himself was so often the at the vanguard of this shift, creating sounds that cleverly evoked his rural idyll as softer and gentler than so much that was going on elsewhere in the music.

“Organic” was always a hardworking adjective when discussing Perry’s productions, although if you want jagged then look no further than his 1969 single The Return of Django, a Top Five UK hit and in itself symbolic for what made him so special as a musical creator.

He was never afraid to ignore whatever else was happening in reggae; Django’s sounds and rhythms were like nothing else at the time – work of the aforementioned madman.

At the same time, he was always keenly appreciative of what was going on in the world outside the studio and eager to absorb it into the songs he wrote and the music he produced – Django, and a slew of records he made around it, reflected Jamaica’s obsession with cowboy films.

It was around that time that Perry worked with the Wailers, and the producer’s enthusiasm for bringing his environment into the recording studio played a significant part in shaping their approach.

He wasn’t keen on working with singers, preferring to experiment musically – hence Django – but connected with this trio largely because they could keep up with his free flow of ideas and often unnerving spontaneity.

At no notice, he would chase the group down the narrow staircase from Randy’s studio into the street where they would pile into the Rover car he brought back from a British tour, shouting that if they want to write about reality, they got to find this reality.

They drove all over town and sometimes into the country, observing incidents or just the mundanities of life, discussing what they had seen, writing lyrics in the car. It’s seldom disputed that the sessions the Wailers did with Perry are the high point of their catalogue, with many of those songs cropping up on later albums.

It was in the early 1970s after building his own studio, the legendary Black Ark, that Perry was able to fully indulge his magpie-like creativity; with the increasing influence of country folk coming to town, roots reggae established itself as the perfect platform.

It’s here the trees and the mountains of his rural roots flowed on to his grooves. Perry was never scared to slow the beat down to this almost weary rhythm that runs through the hard-working people in Jamaica’s countryside, leaving him more space to cram in anything that took his fancy.

Conventional instrumentation shared space with his children’s toys – the moo box on the Congos album being the most famous example. On his own time he could experiment and work to realise the sounds he heard in his head, to move the music forward rather than repeat what had been done.

Frequently this meant running out of tracks to record on as more and more sounds were to be added. He’d have to “bounce them down”, meaning superimposing one track on another to free up space, and the resultant sound would be fuzzy and more than a little bit woozy – his famous soft and gentle vibe.

Perry’s approach to singers evolved in the Black Ark too. Unlike the standard Jamaican way of doing things, in which the backing track was prepared and the singers put on top, he prepared his tracks with specific vocalists in mind and then mixed them in as part of an ensemble piece (not unlike Norman Whitfield with the Temptations, of whom Perry was a fan).

While it may have taken some focus away from the signers, it created an overall vibe that was exactly right for roots reggae and its cultural aspirations. Witness the Heptones’ Party Time, Max Romeo’s War Ina Babylon and the Congos’ Heart of the Congos.

All of which show something else – Perry thought in terms of albums, far more than was usual in reggae at the time, and this made his dub contributions all the more engaging.

For example, Super Ape and Blackboard Jungle Dub are special not just because of his fearless use of unexpected sounds and effects, but because they build and evolve as albums rather than collections of singles.

Perry’s broadminded approach and sense of Afrofuturism – before the term had come into popular use – set him aside from many of reggae’s premier division.

He would look beyond the music’s often claustrophobic boundaries (among others, he worked with the Beastie Boys, George Clinton and Moby) but was never seduced by trying to assimilate to another genre.

In the studio, he was always Lee “Scratch” Perry, a reggae producer first and foremost, to whom very little was sonically off limits. The world was there to be drawn upon, all to the greater purpose of moving Jamaican music onward.

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